Agents of empathy: How medical interpreters bridge sociocultural gaps in genomic sequencing disclosures with Spanish-speaking families

Patient Educ Couns. 2019 May;102(5):895-901. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2018.12.012. Epub 2018 Dec 10.


Objectives: To describe how linguistic tools used by interpreters during return of genomic sequencing results may have impacted communication with Spanish-speaking families, and to discuss the implications for the role of medical interpreters.

Methods: Using discourse analysis, we identified and categorized the various ways hospital-based interpreters adapted clinicians' language in 37 audio-recorded sessions in which Spanish-speaking parents participating in a clinical trial received their child's genomic sequencing results from English-speaking clinicians.

Results: We found that interpreters adapted clinicians' statements using five empathic linguistic tools: contextualization, encouragement, checking comprehension, endearment, and softening. Interpreters used an average of four linguistic tools per session, with contextualization and encouragement being the most frequently used.

Conclusions: Interpreters used empathic linguistic tools to alter clinicians' statements when communicating genomic information to Spanish-speaking families. Our findings demonstrate the critical role of interpreters as cultural mediators and facilitators of understanding for Spanish-speaking families.

Practice implications: This study expands upon the definition of clinical empathy in interpreter-mediated sessions. Our findings suggest that revisions of standards of medical interpretation practice may be warranted regarding interpreters' ability to adapt clinicians' language in a culturally sensitive manner during interpretation.

Keywords: Communication barriers; Cultural competency; Empathy; Genetics; Healthcare disparities; Limited English proficiency; Spanish-speakers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Allied Health Personnel*
  • Communication
  • Communication Barriers
  • Cultural Competency*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Genetic Counseling*
  • Genomics
  • Hispanic or Latino / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Linguistics
  • Multilingualism*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Translating